Succession Planning in the New Normal: HR’s Guide to Evolving the Workforce


The new normal becomes clearer each day as companies recalibrate and reassess their business models and workforces.

Workforce assessments to better understand the skills present and the skills needed for the future are taking place now, with the hopes that career maps and succession plans for the years ahead will come out of it. But what does succession planning look like in this new normal? Where a year ago, the job market was competitive and candidates were hard to come by, the labor pool is now flooded with unemployed workers seeking new opportunities.

Where do those people fit the future of our organizations? How do we help the people currently working for our organizations chart a course for the future that will spur their growth, ensure retention and help the business remain agile and able to sustain the quality of leadership needed for success?

Succession planning has long been a part of any HR practitioners thinking, but the pandemic has presented significant challenges to focusing on it.

“Companies are in survival mode and thoughts of succession planning have been put on the back burner creating a blindspot, focusing solely on the day to day needs to keep the doors open,” says Vivien Frierichs, a veteran HR Director in the hospitality industry. “However, they should take this time to focus on the growth and development of their future leaders giving them a strong advantage for when they return to regular business.  Leverage your current talent and continue succession planning before you lose them to the competition who is making a difference in valuing their people.”

Frierichs says she understands why succession planning is taking a back seat, but warns against letting that continue.

“Developing succession plans should be designed with an eye toward the future, but not truly knowing what the future looks like due to the COVID19 crisis can make this more challenging,” Frierichs said. “Should this crisis impact your business forcing new policies, practices or processes, ensure your design will enable, not disable your top talent. Although transformation to remote work may be a crucial investment at this point, keep in mind it is more about maintaining a truly agile way of working that allows your top talent to thrive.”

In the end, the events of 2020 only highlight the importance of succession planning. Furloughs and layoffs in some industries mean there are fewer people to develop than in Q1 of this year and fewer options to fill skill and experience gaps.

WIth that said, COVID doesn’t have to be entirely bad for succession planning. For one thing, it’s a great time to rethink the process, highlight weak spots and find ways to make it better. Another is that it changes the dynamics of some of those processes. Take, for example, the talent review. With everyone working from home, proximity bias (physical presence being incorrectly associated with doing work) is all but eliminated.

With talent assessments unfolding ahead of 2021, this is important because examples of good leadership become easier to see in teams who embraced remote work and remained productive, and high performing talent can be more easily judged by the substance of their work rather than the presence of their persona within team and personnel dynamics.

As the video below notes, success of succession planning is not only determined by the impact it has on employees in terms of development, retention and attainment of goals, but in how well the effort keeps the succession moving forward over time despite day-to-day hassles and unforeseen events. 

Roles that Require Succession Planning

No organization should be leaderless, nor should a team within the organization. But succession planning has to go beyond leadership to plan accordingly so that mission and operation critical roles continue to be developed and filled. This is particularly important during the era of COVID-19, according to a recent article from Gallup.

Identifying these roles is a key component of a successful succession plan. While traditional succession planning methods have proven to be valuable and have largely remained unchanged in recent years, one thing that may be shifting around the practice is the mentality that drives it. The pandemic is reprioritizing succession planning as a business need and therefore should lead to some shifts in how we think about it. Shawn Moren, CHRO of Regis Corporation, told the HR Exchange Podcast that it’s time to think like an investor when looking at succession planning.

“Which are the jobs that if you have great performance variability in an employee that this job could create additional significant value, so much so that an outside investor or shareholder would notice it?” Moren said. “Those are the critical jobs and it takes a very disciplined approach to look at that and then say where is my star talent? Sometimes we end up putting star talent in administrative jobs or staff jobs, but what if we looked at it from the filter of matching up star talent with those jobs? Even if you have a stable performer in a critical job, that’s not what an investor or shareholder wants, they want someone whose capable of remarkable results.”

Check out the full interview with Moren below.

Charting Success for High Potential Employees

Top performers contribute heavily to a company’s success. According to a McKinsey survey, high performers are 800% more productive than low performers in complex occupations. This will be even more true during this crisis as high performers are more likely to take on the work of others, get involved in task forces and special projects, all the while remaining committed to culture and company values.

High potentials (HiPos) are driving a lot of the success many companies are seeing, but they’re also at high risk for burnout and being overworked. Their success can be supported and prolonged by supportive managers intent on clearing barriers for them and removing any unnecessary forms of stress, including concerns over job security. Putting high potentials into a succession planning process and communicating clearly how they can attain these goals reassures of them of their place in the organization and with a little bit of analysis mixed in, HR can help them identify their best career options.

Identifying Hi-Pos is something that many companies have begun to invest heavily in, anticipating that these people will develop into the future leaders and key players that drive exceptional results. There is a difference, however, between a high potential employee and someone exceeds expectations. HR Exchange columnist Jeanette Winters explains it this way:

“An ‘exceeds expectations’ is an employee performing above their peers – in his/her current role. The key distinction, to being considered a Hi-Po, however, is he/she can grow typically as many as two levels beyond his/her current rank. Exceptional performers may be the best at their current jobs, but may not have the ability to transition to more senior positions. When identified correctly, high potentials will have the ability to progress into senior-level positions.”

The potential is one thing, the process of getting them there is another. As candidates are identified, HR’s ability to steer them through the career mapping process will help a great deal in getting employee buy in and assisting in retention efforts.

One of COVID’s impacts has been the expansion of many company’s talent pools to start tapping into the global talent market. That’s all well and good when it comes to plugging skills gaps, but it can have significant cost associated with it if retention becomes a problem. Career mapping and figuring out ways forward for these people in the succession plan will be equally vital as every other employee.

Regardless of where the employee comes from, the succession planning conversation should be a consistent part of the employee experience so that it becomes part of the culture. According to Paul Rumsey, Chief Learning Officer at Parkland Health and Hospital System, it’s a conversation that has to be driven from the top down.

“Leaders must move the needle beyond just one-time events and into true leadership cultures that assess and develop their people through continual feedback and development discussions in their 1-on-1s and informal feedback discussions throughout the year,” Rumsey said in contributing HR Exchange Network’s report titled Building a Global Succession Planning Strategy. “Then the formal succession meeting is just the documentation of conversations that have occurred previously.”

More Succession Planning Content

Executive Succession

Given that we live in a time where many of the people occupying high profile seats in government and fame have contracted coronavirus, it’s safe to say that no one is immune to the possibility of not only getting it, but having potentially dire consequences for health. All of this at a time when baby boomers are retiring at an increasing rate leaves many organizations in need of clear succession plans.

As a report from Korn Ferry notes, many leader and board roles have taken on 24-7 status in the wake of the pandemic and multiple leaders may need back-up at once. Burnout and panic as reactions to the crisis are pervasive even at the executive level, meaning that leaders making talent decisions around succession planning have to:

  • Ask what roles are most critical to keep the business going
  • Be realistic about people’s capability, engagement and availability
  • Think of business scenarios before deciding on talent and without waiting too long
  • Accept that there will be talent risks that have to be taken.

If there is a bright spot to be found during COVID-19, it’s that many new or potential leaders are learning through experience how to handle a crisis. Making the most of that experience harks back to Frierichs point about getting out of reactive mode and into proactively planning for the worst.

“Develop a skills inventory of your current workforce to help understand which Directors (or managers) can help step in should the need arise to fill an executive seat (whether interim or permanent),” Frierichs said. “Never underestimate the ability to invest in future leaders, identifying high performers and future potentials, so consider all critical roles, not just the C-Suite positions. Are there retirees that could be brought back in should the need arise? This is the time for the company to be aligned and strong while supporting each other through coaching, mentoring and preparing.”

The Fallout from COVID

As previously noted, the COVID era has had an impact on succession planning efforts in that it has caused many to set it aside for another time, at least for a little while. But it’s also changing the way succession planning is done and will continue to do so.

“Companies that thrived during normal circumstances may be stalled in today’s economy, forcing them to change marketing strategies to retain and grow customer awareness,” Frierichs said. “They were forced to drastically cut workforce, suppliers, product, etc.  To get through this until regular business resumes may require a different type of leader than the one that is currently in place. Succession planning can be difficult in the most stable of times, but what this crisis has taught us most, is it is crucial for companies to never stop identifying and developing people to become future leaders.”

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